Christian Riese Lassen
The anti-impressionist. Sequence
and depth. Repoussoir reefs, with flatly
vivid Moorish idols,
tubes, and tangs—a polychromatic
welter that draws back
as we "swim" forward, into the crystalline
nursery where dolphins
adore a humpback calf, or orcas glide,
dive, and roll, exposing
ventral patches to a sun
they seem to know. Fluke-trailing
bubbles: legible propulsion. Breaching,
twisted individuals—look closely
for the catchlights, always present--
rip into the air, an honest signal
whose energetics field
zoologists are reckoning. Exactest
flux—the artist's ministry—as caustic
networks spread their crazed
glories over locomotive silk.
Melissa Tuckman teaches in the English Department at Rowan University. She lives in Philadelphia.
Each Dot a Stone
The first time I visit the Sacred Heart Oratory in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, I bring along my teenage son. He’s off school for the day and supposed to be studying. But he likes art, so I ask him if he wants to join me.
“What’s an oratory?” he wonders, and I have to confess I’m not sure.
“A small church, I think. This one has interesting murals.” I throw in an offer of lunch and he shrugs and grabs his jacket. Anything’s better than study.
I know Dun Laoghaire well, but I’ve never been sure where the Oratory is located. The GPS brings us to a strange building I’ve driven past before, a bright circular structure with miniscule windows. It’s only when we step inside I realise it’s a shell, constructed around the Oratory to protect it from the weather. The Oratory is completely enclosed, like the smallest of Russian dolls, its tiny scale and simple exterior no longer visible from the road.
There’s a handful of other visitors in the waiting area and we watch a short documentary together. The TV is an old, bulky affair and the documentary dull. An art historian speaks in an art history way and my son shifts in his seat. I’ve heard the Oratory described as a hidden gem, but I wonder if it was wise to come. Perhaps it won’t live up to its billing.
The guide, however, is eager. She turns off the TV and walks towards the Oratory.
“Ready?" she asks, and with a flourish, opens the wooden doors.
The surprise is instant. Beyond the doors, a small room the size of a bedroom, covered in exuberant murals. Fantastic birds and beasts whirl around walls interspersed with Celtic knots and Christian symbols. Dots and dashes add emphasis. The room shimmers with a golden energy: The Book of Kells on steroids.
“Wow,” my son says, under his breath.
I feel giddy with delight – me, a woman who hates flamboyance, who values restraint above everything else. Suddenly, I’m Emily Dickinson in the presence of poetry, amazed by the intensity of my response.
I try to follow the guide’s speech; listen to her explanations. One artist, I hear her say. A nun. Ordinary household paint. The stained-glass windows are from the Harry Clarke Studio. Something about stencils.
But what I really want to know is: Who did this?
Who did this?
* * *
Lily Lynch was born in Dublin in 1874. Her father, Thomas, was an artist, famous for his illuminated addresses in the style of early Celtic manuscripts. Lily spent much of her childhood in her father’s studio, becoming such an accomplished illuminator herself, she sometimes carried out work in her father’s name while he was away on business.
It must have been a contented childhood; the cherished, only child, learning at the hands of the father, but Lily’s mother died in 1884 and her father three years later. Lily was faced with the challenge of supporting herself. Despite her youth, and despite the limited expectations of women at the time, Lily took over her father’s studio and ran it successfully for a number of years before entering the Dominican Convent in 1896, where she became Sr Concepta.
There’s a framed photo of Sr Concepta on the altar of the Oratory. She’s wearing a long white habit and a black veil, and she looks at the camera with equanimity. It’s difficult to tell how old she is. Late forties, mid-fifties, perhaps?
I stare at the photo, trying to reconcile Sr Concepta’s unassuming appearance with the riot of colour and imagination that is her Oratory. I’ve a hundred questions, but the photograph remains silent.
* * *
The guide fills us in on the history of the Oratory. It was built in 1919 with a dual purpose: to celebrate the coming of peace and to commemorate the dead of World War 1. The tiny building was plain, inside and out, but Mary Lyons, the Mother Superior, asked Sr Concepta to decorate the niche behind the altar containing a statue of the Sacred Heart.
The statue was controversial. It had been donated to the neighbouring Christian Brothers’ school by parishioners of a French village near Ypres, in memory of the Dun Laoghaire troops who had been stationed there and killed during the War. But the political tide had turned in Ireland following the 1916 Rising and it was no longer politic to memorialise Irishmen who’d served in the British army. The brothers declined the statue. It was left to the sisters to find a home for it.
Sr Concepta decorated the niche and when she was finished, invited her cousins to see her work. They took one look at the remaining walls, plain as a ‘Connemara cowshed’ they said, and urged her to decorate the rest of the Oratory.
And so began 16 years of labour, six hours per day, after a full day’s teaching. Former pupils remember Sr Concepta tucking her habit into a pair of white overalls as she raced down the corridor after school, eager to get to the Oratory.
* * *
In the days following my visit, I read what I can about Sr Concepta’s work. She had “…an unerring eye for, and understanding of, colour”, according to Sighle Bhreathnach-Lynch, former Curator of Irish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland.
“Strong shades of red, greens, oranges, yellow and white balanced the more muted browns, blues, purples, pale pink and black. Gold paint was used sparingly throughout. The total ensemble . . . presents the viewer with a decoration in which all the colours are harmoniously balanced.”
Archaeologist Etienne Rynne describes Sr Concepta’s work as “… ever mouvemente, vibrant with life; her birds squawk, bite and even dance, her serpents wriggle and knot themselves, as do her quadrupeds. Her art has a striking originality throughout….”
I go back and look at the photographs on my phone: the sinuous cat-like figure above the altar; the interlocking snakes; the strutting bird trailing red and gold feathers; the two monks pulling on each other’s beards.
I wonder about the 22-year-old Lily’s decision to enter the convent. Giving up her personal freedom released her from the demands of making a living. But it also protected her from the fickle fashions of the art world. In Ireland, Celtic Revival art fell out of favour. But not in the convent.
In the convent, Sr Concepta was free to continue her work. And what she produced, day after day, was wondrous.
* * *
The next year, when the Oratory opens to the public once more, I bring my daughter. She’s in her final year of college studying Film, and for the past few years she’s been introducing me to films and directors I’d never heard of before. My world has expanded on the back of her education.
Now the tables are turned, and I have something to show her; something I know she’ll appreciate. I can barely contain my excitement on the drive. I feel like a child with a secret, about to burst with the effort of self-control.
We’re the only visitors to the Oratory that day. In the waiting area, I position myself at an angle to my daughter, so I can see her first reaction. I remember my son’s barely whispered wow the year before and wonder what my daughter will say. But she doesn’t say anything. Instead, when the doors are opened, her eyes widen. She opens her mouth as if to speak, then closes it again. Relief rushes through me and I find myself smiling, as if the beauty of the Oratory reflects well on me, as if I am somehow responsible for it.
After the tour, I ask her what she thinks. “So beautiful,” she says, then pauses for a long time. “And coherent.”
She’s put her finger on it exactly. The Oratory thrills because it’s coherent in conception and execution: a contained expression of a lifetime’s work.
I think back to my first visit. When the guide opened the doors, I seemed to see the Oratory in its entirety, as if I’d ingested it whole. I’d never experienced that feeling before, and I haven’t experienced it since.
* * *
I exhaust the small store of books and articles available on the subject. There’s consensus that Sr. Concepta’s work has been overlooked, a shared sense of injustice on her behalf. But there’s also gratitude that the Oratory exists at all; its survival touch and go in the 80s when the nuns sold the convent to a property developer and the Oratory was slated for demolition.
It was saved by a grass-roots campaign led by local artists; Sr Francis Lally, a past-pupil of Sr Concepta’s; and the then Minister for Culture (now president) Michael D Higgins. A grant from the EU Cultural Directive allowed the construction of the specially designed shell to protect the Oratory, the new building itself an architectural award winner. And so, Sr Concepta’s work remains in situ, the murals untouched, the effect undiminished.
I track down an unpublished thesis written in 1997 and spend a quiet morning reading Naoise Griffin’s socio-historical account of the Oratory. What I’m really looking for is insight into Sr Concepta herself; still consumed by the question that sprang into my mind the first time I saw the Oratory: Who did this?
Who did this?
* * *
Griffin at last provides some answers. Her interviews with Sr Concepta’s colleagues and pupils paint a picture of a multi-talented woman, sensitive, intelligent, and charming.
She seems to have had a genuine religious calling. One sister recalled (1997, p.13) that she had “a favourite nook outside, where she liked to pray, and often while she was engaged in this pursuit, she was utterly oblivious to the world and could not be summoned away, lost in a trance.”
She was a devotee of St Colmcille and admired the discipline and dedication of the ancient monks. In many ways, she replicated their lifestyle in the convent, teaching her students the art of illumination in a seven-year apprenticeship, working in austere conditions (the Oratory was frequently cold and dark), regarding her art itself as meditation and prayer. Her description of monks at work in a scriptorium could equally apply to herself:
“Making lines these roads to God
Each dot a stone, each curve a hill,
All these were prayers
Which they had at will.”
The convent provided Sr Concepta with considerable freedom. She taught art and piano, sang operatic songs, staged plays, and subscribed to art journals. The one restraint she faced was physical. The Dominican Sisters were an enclosed order at the time, so she was unable to leave the convent grounds. Instead, she had her students walk to the local hardware shop to pick up her paint: tins of ordinary household emulsion mixed according to her detailed instructions.
She died of TB in 1939, leaving the ceiling of the Oratory outlined but unpainted. Its relative brightness helps illuminate the walls below while also providing an insight into Sr Concepta’s method.
* * *
The last time I visit the oratory, I’m by myself. I’d promised my husband we’d go together, but one afternoon, I sneak out while he’s at work, too impatient to wait until our free time coincides.
When I arrive, a small group is waiting for admission and I feel put out, as if the Oratory belongs to me and the group is trespassing on a private pleasure. A woman smiles at me and I have to force myself to smile back.
Inside the Oratory, I tune out the guide and try to ignore the other visitors. I have a system now for examining the Oratory. I start, like Concepta herself, at the niche behind the Sacred Heart statue; its Byzantine art and fleurs-de-lis yielding gradually to the Celtic-inspired art that surrounds it. I think of the boys who died in Flanders; many the same age as my son who stood here with me just a few short years ago.
I sweep my eyes upwards, take in the cat creature with its golden scales, the lofty red birds on either side of the altar, their elegant forms and outstretched wings frozen mid-dance. Then I turn to the side wall and its panels of intertwined serpents and intricate interlacing; St Kevin with his long blond hair; the wonderful wheeled cross in the centre of it all; and finally, around to the back wall and my favourite section: the two birds flanking the doors, so striking, so fierce. I glance at the unfinished ceiling; Sr Concepta’s vision delicately outlined in gold, at once poignant and satisfying.
I imagine Lily, Sr Concepta, lying on her scaffold in the cold, dim chapel. She knows she’s dying; how could she not? Her body aches and her lungs burn; the effort of holding her brush is almost too great. She would like to finish the ceiling, has already made the stencils and chosen the colours, but time is against her. She thinks of the monks of the past, the great scriptoriums of early Ireland. She thinks of her father and his studio; the vellum addresses he crafted so diligently. And she sets to work again, each dot a stone, each line a road to God.
* * *
I’m still surprised by my response to the Oratory; still unravelling its attractions. I haven’t lost my preference for restraint. Or developed an interest in religious art. But I think about the Oratory often. Its survival appeals to the historian in me; Sr Concepta appeals to the feminist.
But those factors only account for its intellectual appeal. They can’t explain the sudden jolt of joy I felt when I saw the Oratory for the first time or my need to revisit it whenever it’s open to the public.
The next open day isn’t for six months. I plan to bring my other son. He’s a musician with a stubborn streak. I’m curious to see his response.
Aileen Hunt is an Irish writer of creative nonfiction with a particular interest in lyric essays and flash forms. Her work has been published in a variety of online and print journals including Cleaver Magazine, Sweet, Hippocampus, Entropy, and Slag Glass City. You can find her at aileen-hunt.com and @HuntAileen.
The Sacred Family
In nearly every museum in Europe, there hangs a painting of a mother, with her child perched upon her lap. A mother and her child flanked by bodiless winged cherubs. Perhaps consulting the Bible. Swaddled in headscarf and robes. Sometimes the child resembles a shriveled old man, other times the limbs are too long for the body. The mother appears serene, save for a crimp of worry, perhaps for the child’s fate as the Chosen One, or not even as the chosen one, but because this child who comes into the world, skeptical and squalling, is hers. Sometimes halos in pure gold gilt or wispy rings hover like cake plates behind their heads; other times, nothing. Sometimes the artist gilds the backdrop in solids, other times it’s mountains and trees and fields. Sometimes Mary is flanked by scores of men, presumably the saints, inside the walls of an elegant palace, her heaven on earth depicted in opulent fabric, even though she supposedly gave birth in a manger. How many generations of ordinary women have sat as Mary, humble and regal? How many children have sat, unbeknownst to them, as the Son of God, as a careful eye turned their wriggling forms into art?
Like so many before me, I was once cast as a Mary. I did not pose for a painting, but rather found myself as an unwilling Madonna shuffling across the church in my mother’s bathrobe on Christmas Eve. Mum’s was the gold star threat of holiday threats that began, as all threats do during that time of year, with “Santa’s not going to come unless...” unless I answered the priest’s call to play a last-minute Mary because the girl they picked first, Carmella Hinojosa, was sick. What else could I do? I hated crowds, but I wanted Santa’s presents.
Under mum’s powder blue terry, and shepherded by Joseph, I carried a plastic babydoll wrapped in a king-sized sheet, our heads draped with towels like nuns’ veils. The trees—my catechism classmates in brown plastic trash bags holding swaths of pine branches—went “swish swish,” as we searched for a place to have the Baby Jesus. And I tried to be a good Mary but with my red patent shoes gleaming I knew I was no Galilean virgin, but rather, a child of the 80’s who certainly was not destined to be the mother of a Chosen Child. And yet, as the spotlight followed me past the throngs of packed pews, toward the innkeeper’s stall—in actuality, one of the confessionals—I couldn’t help but think about the fate of the Chosen baby, of the first Mary, of all the people who were mean to her and forced her into the barn in the first place. And with the spotlight trailing me, I stopped, even as the beam, to its credit, attempted to guide me toward my final destination. In that moment, Harold Jameson, the “good” innkeeper, perked up, and opened the cavern we were expected to enter—the confessional manger barn where Mary, symbolically, has the baby—and even though the whole congregation waited on me to enter the manger, I simply couldn’t. It was Christmas Eve, 1988, and for the people of Hobart, Connecticut, baby Jesus was not born that night. He was not born there because I fled the church, tripping over my robe, clutching the plastic baby to my belly, out into the wintery night.
Outside, the air was cool enough to see my breath and every corner of the church glowed in strings of golden lights. To heck with Santa’s presents. Baby Jesus, I believed, needed me not to share him with the rest of the world. He needed me to be his mother. On the stone steps under those glowing lights, I pulled him out of the king-sized sheet and held him on my lap, cradled him in my arms, studying him with all wonder and care due of a new mother: would he be okay? Would he survive? Could I protect him? Until my own mother burst out the parish doors, arms akimbo and mad as hell.
In case you’re wondering, Santa did come for me that year. A rainbow legwarmer set and a baby doll not unlike the one I fled with, fluttering eyes and all, appeared the next morning under the tree. The priest decided I was too much of a renegade to finish the pageant, and it went on without me. That night at Christmas dinner, Mum told everyone how the priest emerged from his throne, scooped up a real one-month old baby, and presented it to the parish, high above his head, to applause, and held the sleeping child on his chest throughout the homily, giving each parishioner hope that maybe this child would turn out all right, even if the one they chose to play Mary that year did not. I decided I didn’t care. I’d been Chosen too, for once, and realized it was not for me.
So I study these paintings of the woman and her child, Madonna with Christ. Mother with child. Mary and Jesus. Alone, Mary is just a woman. Alone, the child is just a child. Sometimes a man—Joseph, we presume—emerges on the canvas, making the family, by some accounts, whole, sacred, together. But I gravitate to the paintings where it’s just the two of them, alone together on a wood-backed canvas or stone tablet, once destined to grace a small ornate parish on an Italian hillside, creating something bigger and more precious, alone together.
But enough about my obsessions, for that is what these paintings are. Maybe it’s not even an obsession, but rather the byproduct of how I spend most of my time, away from my own mother, seated in a scratchy blue uniform before a wall of a dozen gilded Madonnas, hoping no one will force me to scold them for getting too close to the art.
Erica Plouffe Lazure
Erica Plouffe Lazure is the author of a flash fiction chapbook, Heard Around Town, and a fiction chapbook, Dry Dock. Sugar Mountain, a flash fiction chapbook, is forthcoming by Ad Hoc Press (UK) in Fall 2020. Her fiction is published in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Carve, Greensboro Review, Meridian, American Short Fiction, The Journal of Micro Literature, The Southeast Review, Phoebe, Fiction Southeast, Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine (UK), Hippocampus Magazine, Litro (UK), and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Exeter, NH and can be found online at ericaplouffelazure.com.
didn’t look at his eyes
the first five thousand years
i pulled his body
into my stomach
and his protein
turned my bronze form
taste of char
and fennel first
then later chalk
i consumed the
gland of anger i
hate was his
(this is what
they made me for
give me my hunger)
i ate the organ entire
stayed all day
grew thick eggs
to replace me
when i died but
i kept not dying
i quick-ripped a lobe
retched it out
over black sea i
was busy i
had daughters i
hoped he was not
(he should try
we had to wait
for the arrow
make us stars
(i was also bound)
so all we could do
was sprout power
from spilled blood
for the children to find
we were partners in this
(you always think
of us together)
from his ichor
we made witches
to avenge us
let me be sidereal
we were saying
let me decompose
in the sky
Jessica Franken is an essayist, poet, and intermittent fiction writer living in Minneapolis. She has work published or forthcoming in River Teeth, The Cincinnati Review, Great Lakes Review, FERAL: A Journal of Poetry and Art, and Bitch magazine, among others.
Cold Dark Matter
You have taken all the pieces of a shed
a lifetimes clutter, discarded, shut away,
a nightmare buried dust deep in the corners of your head
and then you blew it up instead.
A wheel, a fork, the detritus of every day,
you have taken all the pieces of a shed,
the sight of it made me stop dead,
fractured fragments splintered every way
a nightmare buried dust deep in the corners of your head.
A hook, an axe, a dead baby’s bed
the, "Cold Dark Matter," of today.
You have taken all the pieces of a shed
trapped them with your dangling spider thread,
a freeze frame exploded every way,
a nightmare buried dust deep in the corners of your head.
I wonder what it is you dread
death, destruction, life in disarray?
You have taken all the pieces of a shed,
a nightmare buried dust deep in the corners of your head.
Tina Cole was born in the Black Country and now lives in rural Herefordshire. She likes to write about people and relationships good or bad and poems inspired by works of art. Her published poems have appeared in U.K. magazines such as, Brittle Star, Creative Countryside, Poetry Café,Mslexia, Aesthetica, The Guardian newspaper and in several poetry collections. She is a member of the group www.borderpoets.org. In 2019 she won the Oriel Davies Writing Competition and the Welshpool Poetry Competition judged by Liz Berry. She has recently won the Yaffle Press Poetry Competition and was highly commended in the Candlestick Press call for poems on Getting Older!!! She is the organiser of the annual Young Peoples Poetry Competition – yppc2019.org.
abolish the straight lines,
curve all landscapes
bright fluorescence occupies
all spaces and crevices
irregular trees, irregular from birth
intersperse with erratic borderless buildings
set loose from architectural pressures to conform
and unnatural rhythms of precision
as if unbuilt; as if chaos unleashed with garish
disuniformity and spasmodic liberty
allows human expression to shriek
final, fitful, free.
Daniele Nunziata is a poet and a lecturer in English literature at the University of Oxford. His poetry has been performed live on BBC Radio and has been published in numerous journals and magazines, including (most recently) the Oxonian Review, Life-Writing of Immeasurable Events, and Open House. He is also a contributor to Writers Make Worlds. His first book is forthcoming later this year.
The Colours of My Sadness Are Running Down My Face
I start to cry.
I tell my crow that I feel as if I am in a cage.
I ask her if there is a cure for loneliness.
She says, when you are left alone, it rains grains of rice instead of droplets of water.
They congeal in your hair and weigh you down like cement.
You pick at the loose wool
and unravel your favourite jumper
and then get that feeling
that you’re about to burst into tears
so you breathe in
and stare at the floor for a beat
until you exhale like
you’re checking your breath
on a freezing January morning.
My crow is called Kat.
She tells me I should be happy because nothing can keep me in a cage.
Henry is a writer, poet and mental health essayist based in Somerset in the UK. He has a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Birmingham. His latest poetry collection is a collaboration about mental health with Dutch artist Marcel Herms and is available from Egalitarian Publishing.
An Ekphrastic Event with the Paintings of Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso
This poetry “event”—poets responding to paintings by Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso and then the painter responding back—is one of countless literary events that the Covid-19 pandemic bumped from in person to online. In the spring of 2020, the students in my Advanced Poetry Writing course at Southeastern University, along with myself and my poetry collaborator Anna Cotton, were scheduled to perform at our local art museum, the Polk Museum of Art. For the sixth year in a row, we would have delivered our poems aloud while standing on the museum’s wood floors, standing between the very works of art on the walls and a live public audience in the halls.
In losing that physical experience, we lost something important. But in moving online, we gained several important things as well. We gained the opportunity—thanks to the generosity of Lorette C. Luzajic in providing our event a digital home at The Ekphrastic Review--to have the work remain available beyond a single evening. We gained the opportunity for the poet Lisa Pegram and several of the students she led in an ekphrastic poetry event at the Smithonian over a decade ago, the very event that inspired ours in Florida, to join us. And we gained the opportunity for the artist Dellosso, whose work we were slated to engage with in person at the museum in an exhibit titled A Brush with HerStory, to be part of the event—by responding to our responses with a video included at the end of this page. In short, what we lost in immediacy we gained in mediacy—in the ability to have connections and conversations across time and space, mediated by technology, that we would not have been able to otherwise have.
I do not like to speak of a silver lining in a catastrophe. There are no hidden blessings in a pandemic of disease and death ravaging our planet. But there are so many people responding to the situation by discovering and developing new ways to connect and create. We’re so glad to be part of that conversation with this event.
Paul T. Corrigan
Hidden in Plain Sight
What sorcery is such to capture the moon,
place it in a gilded cage,
dangle the keys on foreign fingertips?
The hinge creaks
as she opens the door
to devour my light.
What alchemy swirls the spoon in the tea cup,
where my glow is channelled,
that she might drink until she is full?
In her wake, I am left crescent. Hungry.
I hum. Vibrate. Beam, even.
These are involuntary acts
like blink or breath. They supersede will.
These waves of sound. This constant
rhythm that beats so beautifully against the glass
she is compelled to dance. Drown
her own misery to the tune of mine.
This music brings her joy. She cannot reach these notes.
Or hear the crack inside.
My life force is drained. But a moon
will not be extinguished. Even as it suffers,
to shine is its nature.
I fade, then rest
before assuming my next form
Paso a paso, el remedio--
Step by step, the cure.
Lisa Pegram, MFA is a DC native living in Curaçao. A writer, arts integration specialist and personal chef, she is founder of the Shakti Brigade, an international women arts collective that juxtaposes literature, visual arts, music and wellness.
(Should your soul resemble a moon
shrunk lamp size or a sheet worn ghost thin
or a negative drying in a darkroom
or an infant cholicy gumming spoonfuls of gruel
or an owl old and caged watching out with one large eye
your symptoms require time
Paul T. Corrigan
Paul T. Corrigan teaches creative writing and academic writing at the University of Tampa. His essays and poems appear in a number of publications, including The Ekphrastic Review. Twice he won the Rattle Ekphrastic Challenge.
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